TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Johnny Cash spent 45 years in the limelight, going from country singer to American icon. And between 1958 when he first recorded for Columbia Records until 1986 when they decided not to renew his contract, he recorded over 50 singles and over 60 albums for the label. Recently, Columbia collected all of them in a 63-disc box. Rock historian Ed Ward sat down with this rather big box and gave some of it a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")
JOHNNY CASH: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.
(singing) I hear the train a'coming. It's rolling 'round the bend. And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when. I'm stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps dragging on. But that train keeps a'rolling on down to San Antone. When I was just a baby...
ED WARD, BYLINE: In 1955, John R. Cash was a sometime auto mechanic, sometime appliance salesman who liked to play the guitar and sing, mostly gospel songs. The "R" in his name didn't stand for anything - and, in fact, he'd been named J.R. at birth and had to come up with John when he joined the Air Force. He'd spend the rest of his life reinventing himself.
At first, though, what he wanted to do was make a record. So, like his picking buddy Luther's brother, Carl Perkins, John and his two-piece band went to Memphis to record for Sun Records. They did pretty well, both on the pop and the country charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")
CASH: (singing) I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends up for the tie that binds. Because you're mine, I walk the line.
WARD: There were two things, though, that Cash wanted to do that he wasn't allowed to do at Sun. He wanted to record more gospel songs, and he wanted to make albums. It was common knowledge at the time that neither sold well enough to make them worthwhile, but Cash eventually got loose and signed with Columbia in 1958.
His first album for them, "The Fabulous Johnny Cash," had a smash hit, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," on it, and a couple of gospel songs, one of which was by Dorothy Love Coates, a star of black gospel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ENOUGH")
CASH: (singing) Well, now, I heard that you been talking about me. Really, I don't mind. I know you try to block my progress a lot of the time. Well, the mean things that you said don't make me feel bad 'cause I can't miss a friend that I never had. I've got, I've got Jesus and that's enough. That's enough. That's enough.
WARD: The next album was "Hymns by Johnny Cash," and then came "Songs of Our Soil," a truly weird album where Cash rewrote folk songs his own way, which was dark and cold. But he was selling plenty of records, making money on the road and appearing on the Opry.
In 1961, the Carter Family joined his stage show - not the original trio, but one of them, Maybelle, and her three daughters, June, Helen and Anita. Before long, Cash divorced his first wife and married June, beginning a partnership that would last until her death in 2003.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WERE A CARPENTER")
CASH: (singing) If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?
JUNE CARTER CASH: (singing) If you were a carpenter and I were a lady I'd marry you anyway. I'd have your baby.
CASH: (singing) If a tinker was my trade would I still find you?
CASH: (singing) I'd be the carrying the pots you made following behind you.
JOHNNY AND JUNE CARTER CASH: (singing) Save your love through loneliness. Save your love through sorrow.
CASH: (singing) I gave you my only-ness. Give me your tomorrow.
WARD: Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," from 1969, was indicative of something Cash had always done: listening to all kinds of material. The album it comes from, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," also has two songs by a studio janitor Cash had befriended and encouraged, Kris Kristopherson.
Cash's liberal attitude extended to the TV series he started that year, and not only his friend Bob Dylan, but also people like Pete Seeger, Derek and the Dominos and, yes, Kris Kristofferson got television exposure they'd probably not have gotten otherwise. The show lasted two seasons, and is still fondly remembered.
As the 1970's proceeded, Cash kept putting out records, many of them recorded in his home studio, House of Cash, where he oversaw a company whose job was keeping Johnny Cash on the road and on the radio, and buying interests in various songwriters' output.
He wasn't selling multi-platinum, but few country stars were if they weren't adhering to the new pop crossover country-politan sound, and that wasn't of much interest to Cash. He didn't care about trends, and had enough power in Nashville to do what he wanted: an eccentric home movie about Jesus, "The Gospel Road," or supporting unconventional young songwriters like and Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver, or making concept albums held together by narrations. Or, for that matter, in 1979, recording a song by his new stepson-in-law, Nick Lowe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT LOVE")
CASH: (singing) Without love I am half human. Without love I'm all machine. Without love, there's nothing doing. I will die without love. Without love I am an island all by myself in a heartbreak sea. Without love, there's no denying I am dying without love.
WARD: 1985 brought a highly successful album, "Highwayman," which put Cash and Kristofferson with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings for a set of songs that included the outlaw national anthem, Guy Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." It went to the top slot in the country album charts, and "Desperadoes" hit No. 15 country.
But as the quartet was being given its gold album, someone in the company had already decided that Cash's option wasn't going to be picked up. After 27 years, he'd been dropped. It wasn't over: he went to Mercury, although I've never heard one of those records. And then in 1993 came a series of astounding albums produced by Rick Rubin, which aren't in this box. Thanks to them, by the time he died in 2003, Johnny Cash had regained his proper place in American culture.
GROSS: The music Ed Ward played was from the new 63-CD box set "Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Album Collection."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THE GOOD LORD'S WILLING")
CASH: (singing) If the good lord's willing and the creek stays down I'll be in your arms time the moon comes around for a taste of love that's shining in your eyes.